Friday, December 30, 2011

From "Talking with the Spirits" - Mad Wisdom

I learned early on to listen to my inner voice, and not the cacophony of foolishness that is conventional "wisdom." I recognized that the experience some call "psychosis" was for me an attempt at spiritual transformation, and I sought out wise teachers who could help me. I was fortunate to find this help within Tibetan Buddhism, where the lamas taught me the spiritual nature of my mental states and instructed me in yogic disciplines to stabilize mind within body.

My experience with altered states of mind prepared me for the mental and physical changes of death and dying, which other people fear so much. For example, many people begin to experience depression as they grow older. But I have already, by necessity, learned to deal with depression. Over time, I learned to recognize depression as a kind of prayer. For me, it has become a stabilizing energy that enables me to absorb and accept the vicissitudes of life with calmness and patience.
Sally Clay, who spent over 30 years in the American psychiatric system

Historical evidence suggests an encounter with the Gods is often more frightening than enjoyable. The mind-shattering terror one felt in the presence of Pan inspired our English word "panic." "Holy fools," adepts driven mad by their close relationship with the Divine, can be found in Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, Sufism, Tantra and Russian Orthodox Christianity, among other traditions. But today those experiencing "mad wisdom" are more likely to find themselves institutionalized than lauded as saints.

The very idea of personal gnosis is controversial enough in many quarters. Personal gnosis involving intense, disabling visions is often rejected out of hand. If the Gods want only the best for Their followers, why would They inflict schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or crippling psychosis on a devotee? Instead of dealing with this disquieting theological issue, it is easier to discredit the message and messenger. This is especially easy because of the stigma attached to mental illness. Revelations that fall outside your comfort zones can be safely ignored if they come from a "crazy" person.

This can be a difficult issue. We should not dismiss all bizarre behavior as "insanity" but neither should we pretend that insanity does not exist. Many mental illnesses can mimic the effects of a mystical experience. It can be difficult to distinguish between a psychological disorder and an encounter with the Gods – especially when you take into account that the two are not mutually exclusive. The Gods often find cracked or even broken vessels to be the most useful. But just as not every mystic is mentally ill, not every mentally ill person is a mystic. Joan of Arc and Francis of Assisi heard voices: so did Charles Manson and John Hinckley.
Mentally ill shamans know that our brains aren't entirely reliable. We know we can't always rely on what we believe to be "reality." This gives us a certain advantage over spirit-workers who have never had to question the evidence of their senses or their logic. For them getting a message wrong can be embarrassing. For us it can mean a trip back to the hospital. We tend to be more careful about our revelations and treat them with a healthy skepticism that is often lacking in the Neopagan community.

Having a spiritual contact (what Spiritualists called a "fetch") to sort out the real voices from the subconscious sock-monkeys is very useful. Finding that contact can be the first step to recovery, or at least to making peace with your sickness. But taking that leap of faith and trusting one voice amidst the many can be a terrifying step, with huge consequences if you are mistaken. If at all possible you should get assistance from a qualified spirit-worker who has experience dealing with mentally ill clients. And you should be ready to listen if that spirit-worker tells you "I don't think that message comes from the Gods." A valid contact can help: a sock-monkey will only lead you further into delusion and dysfunction.
– Kohinoor Setora, spirit-worker living with mental illness
We are not obligated to reinforce a sick person's delusions, no matter how much they might want us to do so. But we do have a moral responsibility to treat them with kindness and respect. Mental illness can be a tremendously lonely and isolating disease. Reaching out to a sick person with understanding – even if you must let them know that their "revelation" is just another symptom of their condition – can go a long way toward easing their suffering. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

From "Talking with the Spirits" - Study as Prayer

I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate thy sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree thy truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe — that unless I believed, I should not understand. – St. Anselm of Canterbury

Intellectual knowledge is the foundation - but not the entire edifice - of our relationship with God. The Torah is not telling us to reduce this vibrant connection to a sterile equation. Once a rational foundation is in place, the Torah says to "return it to your heart." We must then work on creating an intimate, deeply personal and satisfying relationship with God, assimilating what we know in our minds into our feelings. We need to use our intellect to guide our emotions. Emotions are powerful tools, but when they are in the driver's seat, we are taken into dangerous territory. Feelings can sweep us off our feet and carry us to a world of illusion - Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith

Mystics in various traditions draw a distinction between intellectual knowledge and the deep insight of spiritual awakening. But this does not mean that they have minimized the importance of study and scholarship. Without a firm intellectual foundation, mysticism can degenerate into escapism and self-deception. Unable to distinguish between the Divine Light and material bubbling forth from their subconscious, untrained mystics can find themselves entranced like Narcissus at various pretty images. Instead of bringing them closer to the Gods, these visions only send them wandering down blind alleys of delusion that draw them away from practical spiritual or material work.

The better you understand your patron Deity through study of the best available sources, the easier it will be for you to distinguish between divine contact and wish-fulfillment. When you have internalized Their tales, you will be better able to recognize Their presence. You will be able to recognize Them by their behavior and demeanor and to spot an imposter spirit or a dream which originates within your mind rather than outside it. Exploring the primary sources, or academic works on the culture in question, can teach you a great deal about the role your patron Deity played in the past and can be expected to play in the present.

It will also be easier for you to identify Them by name. Instead of a vague "sun god" you will be able to distinguish between Sol Invictus, Ameratsu and Apollo – or, for that matter, between Apollo and Helios, two distinct Gods whose stories are often conflated by people with a cursory knowledge of Hellenic mythology. Many popular books present sanitized and homogenized versions of a few well-known stories. With more research, you may discover little-known roles and images that will help you put a name on your spirit-contact and get some idea of appropriate offerings.

Research can help you verify your UPG. Let's say you get a strong feeling that the pomegranate Persephone ate in the underworld was somehow connected to sterility and barrenness. This may seem counter-intuitive at first. Today most people associate the pomegranate with fertility: its round shape resembles the swollen belly of a pregnant woman, and when it is opened it is filled with seeds. But a closer study reveals that pomegranate was frequently prescribed in classical and medieval medicine as an abortifacient and contraceptive. Modern tests on rats and guinea pigs have found that adding pomegranate to the diet of female rats and guinea pigs results in a measurable decrease in pregnancies. Armed with this information, you would have evidence that your hunch was indeed the product of divine inspiration.

Study can facilitate a religious experience. The very act of compiling information about your Deity can be its own prayer. It is a meditation constrained by facts and hard data, one which is less likely to go drifting off into flights of fantasy. And if finding information can be a form of prayer, making that information available to other worshippers can be a powerful offering. Artisans and religious writers throughout history have taken difficult concepts and put them in forms which laity can understand. By digging out material from primary sources and dry academic texts and bringing them to a wider audience, you follow in their footsteps.

Like any spiritual technique, this approach can have its pitfalls. It is possible to use your learning and research to construct elaborately crafted, historically accurate delusions. As we discussed in Chapter 4, some people make a fetish of research and scholarship: their path becomes less a direct encounter with Divinity than an effort at recreating an ancient faith down to the smallest details. We will also need to keep in mind that scholarship is not a static discipline. Egyptology as it was practiced in Victorian times bears little resemblance to today's academic discipline: this century's brilliant professor may well be the next century's quaint curiosity. If our visions don't jibe with contemporary academic thought, it could be that they are wrong or it could be that our scholars are in error.

If we wish to reforge the old connections with the Gods, we will do well to understand the ways They were honored in the past. But we also need to understand that the world has changed, for better and for worse, in the long centuries since They were last honored. The trick is to create ways of veneration that are appropriate for our society and which meet the needs of both Gods and worshippers. An exclusive focus on Their ancient glories runs the risk of placing Them safely in a Golden Age and making Them irrelevant to the here and now. Ultimately we may do best to follow the lead of Reconstructionist Judaism and give the past a vote but not a veto.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

From "Talking with the Spirits:" Circles of Worship

Many different practices are lumped together under the rubric of “worship.” If we are going to understand the way spiritual practices help us relate to and understand the Divine, we may do well to examine those various layers and the ways in which they influence each other. “There are many different pathways to God” is a common truism. But few realize that every individual simultaneously walks on several of these pathways at any given time.

The core of this spiritual onion is the relationship between Deity and the individual. Since the Protestant Reformation and its focus on a personal relationship with Christ, this layer has received the lion’s share of attention. Interactions at this level are personal and intimate. They may resemble the relationship between a king and his subject, between a mother and her child, between a lover and the beloved, between old friends exchanging helpful suggestions and entertaining anecdotes – the possibilities are endless.

From there we have the relationship between Deity and the family. Today we rail against efforts to “indoctrinate” children. For most of history indoctrination was seen as a good and a necessary thing. Parents were expected to pass down their religious teachings to their offspring. Spirituality provided children with role models to follow and provided a moral and ethical foundation that would help them become strong and productive adults. Much as children might learn the family trade, so too would they learn the family prayers and become acquainted with the family spirits.

Still other layers of worship were placed atop these. The family participated in the spiritual life of their village. Depending on the village’s ethnic or cultural makeup, those rites might establish them as part of the greater community or set them apart. Sometimes it would do both. In the Classical world different communities might serve the same God using different rites and representations. This did not give rise to war and to calls of blasphemy but to pilgrimages. A merchant who wanted to repay a debt to Zeus might visit His temples in several different cities. There he might be regaled with different stories of the Sky-Father’s origin: he might hear of Zeus the wolf-father, the Cthonic Zeus who lived underground, or the ram-horned Zeus Ammon honored in the Egyptian deserts. All these different tales of Zeus were proof of His glory and majesty: instead of focusing on their contradictions, devotees saw them as part of a greater whole, a Mystery that could not be summed up in a single book or a single legend.

A vision or a visitation might result in changes to the practices within an area, or they might result in visionaries setting up temples elsewhere and putting their gnosis to practical use. This was not seen as irreverence but as the highest form of devotion. Be it a small roadside shrine or a massive marble temple about which a city formed, gnosis led to the creation of another sacred place and gave us another myth by which we might come closer to the Gods. Worship was inclusive rather than exclusive: as the worlds of their devotees changed and grew, so too did the worlds of their Gods. As time went on new stories were added to the canon: once-important and widely known tales faded in importance and were lost.

(Indeed, many would argue that changes in the world of humanity were spurred by changes in the world of the Divine. Where many today believe the sacred world is a pale reflection of mundane reality, many historical intellectuals believed our reality was but shadows cast by the Divine Light – see Plato’s thoughts on the “Forms” for one particularly influential version of this theory).

This is not to say that the liturgies and rituals of the Gods were completely flexible, or that arbitrary changes were acceptable to the clergy or the congregations. Cities maintained their religious rites as diligently as their walls and defenses: families protected their patron spirits as fiercely as their treasure. Traditions were not altered without very good reason: it typically required some combination of gnosis, charisma and armed force to make changes in the way a city honored its Gods. Those who were unsuccessful in their campaigns were often invited to leave or even jailed or killed for blasphemy.

Religious controversies did not begin with the rise of monotheism. The Romans were horrified by the Carthaginian practice of infant sacrifice. (They also feared Carthage as a competitor, proving that the use of religious grudges for political ends has an equally long history). There were certainly doctrinal disputes and disagreements that might disrupt a community: the Bacchanals frequently attracted negative attention for their frenzied rites. But by and large there was a great deal of flexibility in the ancient world. Groups were allowed to believe and worship as they saw fit, so long as their members functioned as peaceful and productive citizens.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

From "Talking With the Spirits" - Doctrinal Disagreements: the Right Way(s) of Approaching Deity

Within modern Paganism we frequently find that theological discourse begins from one of two extreme positions. The most common is the idea that there is no “right” or “wrong” when serving the Gods. The only sin is intolerance: the only blasphemy is to accuse another of blaspheming. If someone wants to serve hamburgers to a Hindu deity or dedicate their mixed martial arts training studio to a peace-loving God like Kwan Yin, it is not our place to criticize them. So long as nobody gets hurt, anything goes. (This, of course, leads to the thorny question of “what constitutes ‘gets hurt’” – but frequently that issue is ducked altogether, or answered with platitudes about how everyone has life lessons to learn and we shouldn’t interfere with someone else’s path).

Often this approach is rooted in a belief that the Gods are merely symbols or tools by which we may better understand ourselves. Abstractions cannot be offended or take umbrage at blasphemers: if rituals are merely psychodrama, their value lies solely in what they can do for the participants, not what they offer to the Divine. When the question is not “how can we serve the Gods?” but “how can the Gods serve us?” there is little need for doctrinal purity or ritual protocol. There is also in many cases a conscious rejection of rigid doctrines that assign unbelievers to eternal torment and damnation. If we are going to reject our natal religion and create a new one, we might as well start by jettisoning the most problematic issues with our old faith. There have certainly been many atrocities committed by people who were convinced they were doing God’s will. And to outsiders (and many insiders) the motivations for spiritual conflict can seem trivial and even silly.

But while this approach may be useful for conflict avoidance, it can be unsatisfying for those seeking a greater rigor in their spiritual life. If your present spiritual path is no better than any other and no more likely to bring you closer to the Divine, then why waste time traveling on it? Some have sought and found structure in living faiths. They become initiates in African Traditional Religions and master every detail of their tradition’s practices; they memorize pages of Sanskrit and do pujas that would impress a Mumbai Brahmin; they become Thelemites who can tell you what Aleister Crowley had for supper the evening he wrote a poem that sheds light on an obscure line in one of his Class B publications. Others collect volumes of scholarly texts on history, archaeology and related disciplines in an effort to recreate the religion of their ancestors with the most painstaking accuracy possible.

This kind of dedication is laudable and can definitely help a seeker to better understand their Gods and their faith. But it can also become an end in itself rather than a means toward developing a deeper spiritual relationship with the Divine. Those who take a more casual approach to their faith are scorned as “fluffy bunnies” or “culture vultures” who are merely playacting. Devotion is measured not by how much an adherent loves the Gods, or how important a role They play in the worshipper’s life, but by how much knowledge devotees accrue concerning the traditional ways They were served, and how slavishly they recreate ancient rituals.

The possibility of a middle path is all too often minimized or ignored altogether. What if we accepted that the Gods are real and that They can be offended by our actions? But what if we also accepted that the rules of Divine/human engagement are written and enacted not as universal Truths but as individual and community guidelines? We stumble when we say that all spiritual paths are equal and any convenient way of approaching the Divine is as good as any other. But we also stumble when we attempt to create overarching “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” which apply beyond our immediate circles.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

From "Talking with the Spirits" - Gnosis and Accusations

Controversies frequently arise when gnosis moves from a personal encounter with the Gods and becomes a divine engagement with a community of believers. One person's prophet is another's insane cult leader: one group's holy scriptures are another group's collection of incoherent rants. Disagreement and disbelief often lead to accusations of unsavory and even criminal behavior.

Determining whether or not these claims have any merit can be a difficult task. Witch wars and theological disputes have historically led to allegations of  devil worship, human sacrifice and all sorts of luridly titillating details intended to show that the opposing party isn't just doctrinally questionable but outright evil. When we are dealing with gnosis and personal interactions with the Gods, it is important to distinguish between doctrinal differences and actual criminal activity. We may disagree in good faith about how a Deity should be served. There should be universal agreement that abuse and exploitation are unacceptable no matter what religious justifications the abuser puts forth.

Annamaria Filan (age 12 days):
not on topic but awfully cute.
To sort out idle gossip from serious issues, it may help to apply the old journalistic "Five Ws."

Who? Who committed these alleged crimes? Who are the victims of these nefarious schemes? Who are the witnesses?  Some of the people involved may wish to remain anonymous for one reason or another but  there should be at least a couple of verifiable names to be found somewhere in the tale.

What? What are the specific offenses? Instead of nebulous comments about "brainwashing" look for detailed descriptions of actual incidents wherein the alleged perpetrator abused hir power. When you hear someone is a "pervert," find out what the claimant means by those terms. Is the critic talking about consensual or nonconsensual activity: what specific behaviors does sie find offensive?

When and Where? When and where did these events take place? Abuses don't happen in a vacuum. If someone remembered them well enough to share with a third party, they most likely remembered the approximate date and location as well.

Never mind the crucifix:
she did #2 in that diaper!!!! 
Why? Why would the offender do such a terrible thing? Christopher Lee and Vincent Price made careers out of playing villains who were evil for the sake of evil. Just about everyone else is convinced they are doing the right thing, and feel their motivations are perfectly reasonable and sane.  And while we're asking the question: what are the motivations of the person or persons bringing this information forward?

An inability or unwillingness to provide specifics is a huge red flag. It suggests your source is mindlessly parroting gossip at best, or engaging in an active campaign of smears and whispered innuendo at worst.  If you can get a few clear data points, you're in a much better position to corroborate or refute claims.  If it turns out the alleged perpetrator was in a different country on the day the "atrocity" took place, or that the "victims" were actually willing participants who found the experience enlightening or even enjoyable, that's one thing. If a little bit of digging reveals a large number of disparate people telling very similar horror stories, that is quite another.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

From the Upcoming "Talking with the Spirits" - Preserving the Lore, Transmitting the Lore

In discussions of religions of antiquity, “reconstruction” refers to the process of building a model of previous historic and pre-historic traditions, and then examining that model for ideas of how to implement those traditions in a modern, practical sense. The specific definition of “reconstruction” which fits our usage best is, “an interpretation formed by piecing together bits of evidence”.

In the case of [Celtic Reconstructionism], what we are attempting to model are the various forms of pre-Christian Celtic spirituality. We do this in order to create a modern spiritual practice that retains as much authentic older material as possible while also being workable in the modern world. We do this because we feel called to Celtic Deities and a Celtic worldview, and we wish to help preserve modern Celtic languages, music, and cultures
  Kathryn Price NicDhàna, Erynn Rowan Laurie. C. Lee Vermeers and Kym Lambert ní Dhoireann
Because we are a highly literate culture, we tend to learn things from text. Books (and now e-readers, tablets and the Internet) are our preferred medium for the storage and transmission of information. Our religious beliefs were shaped by the Reformation, when the printing press took Scripture and its interpretation from the hands of an educated clergy and turned it over to the individual.  Given that, it’s not surprising that we equate “lore” with stories we can read. Nor is this entirely a modern phenomenon. Many religions have holy books, not just the big Monotheist faiths: consider the Rig Vedas, the Zoroastrian Avestas and similar texts.

Sacred books can preserve a great deal of ancient knowledge, and provide a framework upon which we can build sociocultural institutions and identities. After the Temple's destruction, the Rabbis preserved Jewish identity and culture through their veneration of Torah and Talmud: they allowed the Jews to survive as a people when many peoples were consigned to the dustbins of history.  We cannot minimize the value of the written word.  But neither should we minimize other ways of preserving information which are perfectly functional and which even have advantages over the literary approach.

Songs and Recitations: Singers and bards have long memorized lengthy passages. The Iliad and Odyssey were transmitted orally before being preserved in writing.  Even today the Kirghiz preserve their ancestral history in the Manas saga, an epic of over 236,000 lines - almost nine times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined! (And yes, there are manaschi – trained performers of the saga - who know every line).  These songs and stories are more flexible than the written word. The poet/singer is given room to improvise, to alter the text to address contemporary problems.  Current events can be incorporated into the tribe's collective memory and become a part of their mythology. 

Oral epics grow within a well-established culture, yet are less subject to official censorship and control.  Controlling printing presses and libraries is one thing: controlling the songs the grandparents sing to the children at night is a far more difficult matter. The chante lwa (lwa songs) of Haitian Vodou come out of a society where dictatorial government by force has been the rule. They feature many double entendres, allusions and sly winks which are clear to the poor peasant singers but which a wealthy spectator would likely miss.  In a land where expressing one’s grievances can be fatal, the chante lwa allow believers to communicate safely with their fellows and with their spirits.

And while the written word can convey information with great accuracy, there are emotional nuances that can better be transmitted by music. Rhythms can induce altered states of consciousness and even full-on trance possessions. Marching songs can gear an army up for war: love songs can put an audience in a romantic mood.  Sufi mystic Syed Mumtaz Ali said their devotional Sama songs were
… a means of increasing the brightening light of the burning flame of the love of Allah and it has a tremendous spiritual effect on the listeners. Many a Sufi undergoes a state of unveiling of spiritual divine mysteries. When such states coming from the world of the unseen thus become overwhelming, the Sufis experience a particular kind of spiritual state of transformation which is called 'wajd' or spiritual ecstasy. 
… Sama which moves and activates this mystical element in man in such a way that it makes the listener totally unaware of his surroundings in this phenomenal world to some other reality. The man thus becomes completely unaware of this world, its surroundings and the effects of the corporeal universe. Sometimes the effect of Sama becomes so intense and severe that all the energy and strength of the listener's limbs becomes suspended and he loses his consciousness. One who remains intact and manages to stay on his original position even after passing through such a state of deep ecstasy reaches and attains to very high spiritual positions indeed!
Art: In cultures where only a privileged few are literate – that is to say, most cultures throughout history – the masses must get their religious education through other means.  The decorations in temples and cathedrals were not just for show. They were also a means by which stories could be passed down to spectators. Murals told the story of a people’s noble triumphs and heroic defeats. Statues gave concrete form to abstract ideas and provided a tangible representation of intangible beings.  By meditating upon those images, the postulant could gain an understanding beyond a merely intellectual apprehension. Standing before an enormous marble sculpture of Poseidon, they could feel both the sea king’s enormity and His personality.   The Netjer (Egyptian deities) could be symbolized with hieroglyphs but came to vivid life in wall paintings and brightly colored statues.

Idols were a nexus between the sacred and mundane worlds, a literal embodiment of Spirit. In creating images of the Gods, craftsmen brought Them into their place and their time.  The Renaissance artists who painted saints in contemporary clothing and who surrounded Jesus with European shopkeepers and peasants were bringing His mystery into their era. They were focusing on the Crucifixion and Resurrection not as historical curiosities but as eternally recurring Mysteries.

Monotheists condemned idolatry because they felt that it limited the infinity of the One God, that it focused on the creation rather than the Creator. But few who venerated idols were so foolish as to believe that their God could only be found in a particular image. Rather, they recognized that their shrines were both wholly statue and wholly God: the Divine was infinite yet also present within the confines of the sacred image. (Christianity preserved some of this line of thought in their Mysteries of the Incarnation and the Transubstantiation of the Eucharist).  Hindu scholar Shukavak N. Dasa explains:
Hindus worship specific images that are described in scripture (shastra). The technical name for these sacred images of God is arcya-vigraha. Arcya means 'worship-able' and vigraha means "form" and so arcya-vigraha is the "form to be worshipped." We can also say that God agrees to appear in these special forms that can be understood by human beings in order to allow Himself to be worshipped.
Drama:  Greek drama began as rituals to Dionysus. Comedies celebrated joyous stories during the green spring and summer: tragedies honored sad events in His mythos during the cold fall and winter months when nature mourned. Through watching the downfall of heroes audiences could experience pity and terror, resulting in a catharsis (purification) of negative emotions. The broadly drawn burlesques of comedies allowed them to laugh at human frailties: often these “satyr plays” were ribald observations on love and lust wherein even the Gods could be subjected to gentle lampooning.
Ritual drama was hardly confined to the Pagan world. Medieval mystery plays like Everyman provided moral guidance and edifying allegory to the peasant crowds. Passion plays brought the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus to vivid life. (Alas, the audiences frequently became so engrossed in the action that they later took to the streets en masse to punish any “Christ-killing” Jews they could find). On the Day of Ashura, Shi’ite Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali with parades of flagellants lamenting his death and wounding themselves to bleed as he bled. And Yiddish theater, which influenced American dramatic forms from Vaudeville to Hollywood, has roots in Purimshpil, comedic improvisations performed in synagogues during the Feast of Purim.

Although it sometimes results in possession, dramatic reenactments need not draw down the Gods directly. More often they bring the audience to the Gods or to the events being celebrated. Whether as spectators or participants, they experience the past as present. This can become a powerful means by which community is created – especially when these dramas are performed for a strictly limited audience and serve as initiation ceremonies.  Then they can serve both to enlighten and to mark the participants as a people set apart.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Gilgamesh IV: Gilgamesh at the End of the World

Only two humans have ever been granted eternal life: Utnapishtim and his wife, the only survivors of the Great Deluge. Because they had not been drowned in the flood (thanks to a sneak tip from the kindly god Ea) the gods made them "like unto us gods." But then, to ensure that they wouldn't give any ideas to the newly created second generation of humanity, the gods sent them far away. No one could survive the trials of the journey to their home, called "the mouth of all rivers" and "the ends of the earth." But Gilgamesh never shied away from a challenge – especially now that he had nothing left to lose.

Gilgamesh marches past the Scorpion-Men of the Mashu Mountains; he trudges through twelve leagues of darkness in the Lands of Night; he rides a raft over the treacherous Waters of Death. At last he meets Utnapishtim, who tells him that death is a necessary part of human existence: only the gods are immortal. But when Gilgamesh persists, Utnapishtim tells him that immortality shall be his if he can only stay awake for six days and seven nights. Gilgamesh agrees to this – then, worn out from his journey, promptly falls asleep.

When Gilgamesh awakens, he bemoans his fate. Taking pity on him, Utnapishtim tells him of a plant which grows at the bottom of the sea: those who eat it will have their youth restored to them. Tying stones to his feet, Gilgamesh sinks into the depths and finds the plant. But yet again sleep overtakes him as he returns to land – and while he slumbers a snake swallows the secret of youth! Disconsolate, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk. But as he sets foot in his city he speaks proudly of its mighty walls and the keystone of lapis which details his exploits.

Exercise 1-4: Acceptance

In your life you have probably suffered many losses: you have experienced deaths, breakups, layoffs, rejections of all sorts. How long did it take you to recover from these events?. What did you do to aid in that recovery, and what did you do that prolonged your suffering? Did you "get over it" or are you still feeling the loss? If the former, how long did it take for your grief to abate? If the latter, what do you do to get through your daily activities? What lessons would you take away from your previous grief in dealing with the present and the future? 

As the story ends, Gilgamesh has lost his chance at eternal life and renewed youth. He laments his defeat, crying out " I have not secured any good deed for myself, but only for the serpent, the lion of the ground'!" The mighty king must return to Uruk in disgrace, his mission a failure. But although he must grow old and die like his friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh takes solace in his deeds and accomplishments. Still suffering from his loss, he concentrates on the things which still remain. He may not be immortal, but his city will live on after him and his deeds will be celebrated long after he is gone. At the tale's end, Gilgamesh has attained the final stage of grief, acceptance.

Acceptance does not mean that your pain goes away: rather, it means learning how to live with that pain. Some wounds cannot be healed by affirmations, positive thinking or a can-do attitude. Mia, whose 5-year old son suffers from cerebral palsy and developmental disabilities, gives a poignant account of living with that never-ending sorrow:
I accept that among all the tired days and nights of the endlessness of the hyper vigilance of his care, I know that I will grieve. I know it will come. I know it won’t stop. I have found ways to get by in giving myself the opportunity to do it, by giving myself permission. I have come to accept that I will never truly finish grieving. But I couldn’t be happier to have my special boy.
Setting manageable goals for your recovery can help: make gradual steps toward returning to where you were before tragedy struck. Understand that you will have good days and bad days: the former are not a sign that you have forgotten your loss, nor are the latter a sign that you are being weak or indulging in self-pity. Gilgamesh likely spent many nights mourning his lost friend: as he grew old, he may have ruminated ruefully on how close he came to immortality. But he still managed to rule over his people and pass on his legacy – and his story – to those who came after him.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Gilgamesh III: the Death of Enkidu

The night after their return and the triumphal feast, Enkidu awakens in terror. He has dreamed that the gods have held a conference. Because Enkidu and Gilgamesh have slain Humbaba (who guarded the Cedar Forest for the god Enlil) and disrespected Ishtar, they must be punished. Because Gilgamesh is two parts god and one part man, while Enkidu is half-man and half-beast, they decide that it is Enkidu who must die.

Soon after his dream, Enkidu is overcome by a grievous illness. As he grows weaker, Enkidu curses the trapper and the harlot who brought him to Uruk. In giving him the knowledge of civilization, they have also given him the knowledge of mortality: instead of the clean death of a wild animal, he now faces a shameful death on a sickbed.  But then Shamash, God of the Sun, calls to him from the sky and reminds him that, even though his life was short, it was happy. He has known the pleasures of the countryside and city both, but most importantly:
Now Gilgamesh is your beloved brother-friend!
He will have you lie on a grand couch,
will have you lie on a couch of honor.
He will seat you in the seat of ease, the seat at his left,
so that the princes of the world kiss your feet. 
Thus reassured, Enkidu withdraws his curses and replaces them with blessings. After twelve days of suffering, the once-wild man departs this earth for the place where the dead dwell, a grim land where they "drink dirt and eat stone" in eternal darkness. Gilgamesh is inconsolable: for a week he keeps vigil beside Enkidu's corpse, trying desperately to awaken him. Finally a maggot falls from Enkidu's nose as Gilgamesh shakes him. Realizing at last that the situation is beyond hope, the heartbroken Gilgamesh allows his friend to be buried and commands his whole kingdom to mourn.

As the days pass, Gilgamesh's sorrow only grows greater. No longer does he wash himself, comb his hair or shave: instead of his royal robes, he dresses himself in the skins of wild animals. His mourning is combined with a deep, existential terror. In seeing his friend die, he has been confronted with his own mortality: he knows now that all his treasures and all his achievements must ultimately turn to dust. Turning away from his castle and his kingdom, he takes to wandering in the wilderness, crying bitterly.

Exercise 1-3: Grief
We all experience loss. Grieving over a lost child, a beloved pet, or an irredeemably broken relationship is not necessarily a sign of self-indulgence or weakness. Rather, it is a lamentation. There may be lessons to be learned from this experience, but right now there is only pain. Give yourself permission to feel that pain and express that pain. If it brings tears, cry: if it brings anger, rage. Let the pain speak until you have gained what the Greeks called catharsis – the purging of pent-up emotions and release of tension.

We place a great emphasis on keeping a stiff upper lip, on holding oneself together and being strong in the face of adversity. Expressions of pain and suffering are unseemly. Boys don't cry, and neither do women who wish to be taken seriously. Those who don't "get over it" and go on with their lives – those who are still mourning after some set period of time or who are too open about their suffering – are shunned: at best their efforts to share their pain are met with uncomfortable silences and efforts to change the subject.

In many other cultures lamentation for loss is not only acceptable but expected. In Haiti it is believed that the dead will not rest unless they receive their due of mourning: those who do not cry and show their grief at funerals run the risk of being haunted. Keening, haunting wails of pain and loss performed by hired mourners, was customary at traditional Irish funerals. Orthodox Jews who have lost a parent, child, sibling or spouse perform keriah, the ceremonial rending of the garment, to give vent to anguish by means of a controlled, religiously sanctioned act of destruction.  Gilgamesh's mourning is extreme even by Sumerian standards, but so too is his loss. His actions are not presented as a sign of his weakness but as a sign of his love and a fitting response to the death of his beloved companion.

Grief is recognition that one's life has been irrevocably changed. A part of your identity has been torn away: wife becomes widow, son becomes orphan, spouse becomes divorcee. The challenge is to create a new way of life while incorporating the old. For the grieving Gilgamesh, it is important that his friend be remembered. He orders that a monument of gold and lapis lazuli – the most precious materials known to Sumerian culture – be erected in Enkidu's honor: he also commands his subjects and all of creation to join him in his mourning.

Often grief is accompanied by a profound sense of guilt. When we lose a loved one to a disabling chronic illness, we may feel a sense of relief at their passing: their troubles are over, and so are ours. No matter how sad we feel, we may think that we are not sad enough: our happiness and healing become weapons we can use to flagellate ourselves for not loving our deceased enough. We may treat our loss as a sign of failure: if only we had done things differently, it wouldn't have come to this. The mighty Gilgamesh is not used to failure, and yet his strength and cunning cannot save Enkidu.

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross has defined various stages of grieving. First we see Gilgamesh going through denial as he sits with Enkidu's corpse and refuses to accept his friend's death. Then, as he realizes that Enkidu is gone, he enters the anger stage. His pain manifests itself in his refusal to attend to his duties as king and ruler. Much as "cutters" use self-mutilation to express their anger, Gilgamesh's unshorn beard, dirty face and filthy animal-skin clothing are outward signs of his internal suffering. From here comes bargaining: frightened by the presence of death, Gilgamesh resolves to conquer it by gaining immortality for himself.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Gilgamesh II: Gilgamesh and Enkidu meet Humbaba – and Ishtar

Gilgamesh introduced Enkidu to the finer things of civilization. They spent many days feasting, drinking, and enjoying all the pleasures that Uruk had to offer. But soon they became bored. Finally Gilgamesh proposed a fitting quest: a journey to the Cedar Forest, where they would fight its guardian, the terrifying demon Humbaba. Enkidu cautioned his new friend, reminding him that Humbabu's "roar is a Flood, his mouth is Fire, and his breath is Death!" But despite the best efforts of Enkidu and the Noble Counselors of Uruk, Gilgamesh would not be dissuaded from his dangerous quest. Distraught, Gilgamesh's mother cried out to the great god Shamash, "Why have you inflicted a restless heart on my son?" But her pleading was for naught and at last the duo went off to do battle.

During their journey to the Cedar Forest, Gilgamesh has a number of terrifying dreams which make him doubt their quest. But each time Enkidu puts a positive spin on them, stating that they only foretell their ultimate victory. Finally they come to the Cedar Forest and meet Humbaba. After a brief fight, they slay him, but not before he utters a curse promising that Enkidu will die before his friend. Flush with the triumph of their victory, they pay Humbaba's words little heed: then, as Gilgamesh is washing up after the battle, he receives a marriage proposal from the goddess Ishtar, who promises him a chariot of lapis lazuli and gold in exchange for his favors. But while he showed little concern for his safety when fighting Humbaba, Gilgamesh treats Ishtar's proposal with a great deal more caution.
Tammuz, the lover of your earliest youth,
for him you have ordained lamentations year upon year!
You loved the colorful 'Little Shepherd' bird
and then hit him, breaking his wing, so
now he stands in the forest crying 'My Wing'!
You loved the supremely mighty lion,
yet you dug for him seven and again seven pits.
You loved the stallion, famed in battle,
yet you ordained for him the whip, the goad, and the lash,
ordained for him to gallop for seven and seven hours,
ordained for him drinking from muddled waters, 
Stung by his rejection, Ishtar returns to heaven and complains to her parents of Gilgamesh's disrespect. To avenge their daughter's heaven, her father Anu and mother Anrum send the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh. But Enkidu and Gilgamesh slay the bull: Enkidu adds insult to injury by wrenching off the bull's hindquarter and throwing it in Ishtar's face, saying "If I could only get at you I would do the same to you."

Exercise 1-2: Boredom
Although most people associate depression with sadness, it can also manifest as a discontentment with daily life and its routines. If you constantly feel bored, you may be suffering from depression. Although boredom has received less scholarly attention than more spectacular emotions like anger and depression, it is every bit as ubiquitous, and as dangerous. Boredom has been linked to social problems like delinquency, drug abuse, low morale, poor industrial production, job turnover, and dropping out of school. List the things you find boring in your life, as well as some things (good or bad) which you do to deal with boredom.

There are several different theories as to what causes boredom. Many psychoanalysts believe that boredom results when individuals turn anger and hostility against themselves: some existentialists consider boredom a fitting response to the universe's lack of purpose and intrinsic meaning while post-modernists claim that boredom reveals the fragmentation, homogenization, narcissism, and shallowness of contemporary culture. Institutions like prisons, mental hospitals, nursing homes and military barracks struggle with boredom and strive to find ways to keep their charges occupied.

According to psychologist Stephen Vodanovich, "The most common way to define boredom in Western culture is 'having nothing to do."   Early research focused on monotonous tasks performed by factory workers on an assembly line: in 1986 Norman D. Sundberg and Richard F. Farmer developed a 28-question Boredom Proneness Scale (BPS) to test an individual's propensity to boredom. Using the BPS, it soon became clear that some are more prone to boredom than others, requiring constant and ever-changing stimuli lest they fall prey to discontentment and ennui. (Adolescents, particularly adolescent males, generally have lower boredom thresholds: this may go a long way toward explaining their penchant for stupidly dangerous behavior). Gilgamesh clearly falls into that category. Unable to satisfy himself with wine, women and song, he puts himself and his friend at great risk in search of excitement.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that boredom is the antithesis of what he calls "flow," a state characterized by effortless attention, focus and absorption in a task. Csikszentmihalyi has found that flow occurs when the individual's skills match the level of challenge presented by the environment and when a task includes clear goals and immediate feedback: tasks which are too easy quickly become boring while tasks that are too difficult lead to anxiety.  Despite their luxurious and pampered life in Uruk, Gilgamesh finds himself growing discontented and restless. After finally facing a challenge from Enkidu, he is itching for another worthy opponent: the fact that Humbaba might be too much for him only serves to drive him on.

As psychologist Erich Fromm has pointed out, it is much easier to get excited by anger, rage, cruelty and the passion to destroy than by love or productive and active interests. Love and construction require patience and discipline: the lover/builder must endure frustration and overcome narcissism and greed.  Gilgamesh shows little interest in Ishtar's wiles. He is happy to risk life and limb in a fight, but less inclined to take a chance on romantic attachments. Unable to meet love with love, Gilgamesh responds to Ishtar with a more familiar and comfortable cruelty: this sets into action the events which will lead to Enkidu's death.

Like pain, boredom can be a warning signal. Richard Bargdill studied the lives of six people who complained of chronic boredom: in each case he discovered that they had relinquished their original life goals and chosen instead the path of least resistance. Although uncomfortable with their present situation, they did little to change it. Their boredom abated when they began imagining new possibilities for their lives and taking steps to make them a reality.  If you are chronically bored, you can numb the pain with drugs or distractions. You can seek excitement through ever-increasing risks. Or you can take positive steps to regain control of your life.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

From the "Started but Never Completed" File - Gilgamesh I

I've been looking through my files and discovered a few manuscripts which I started but never finished.  This piece on Gilgamesh comes from a book-in-progress on Melancholia and Magic.
Supreme over other kings, lordly in appearance,
he is the hero, born of Uruk, the goring wild bull.
He walks out in front, the leader,
and walks at the rear, trusted by his companions.
Mighty net, protector of his people,
raging flood-wave who destroys even walls of stone!
Offspring of Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh is strong to perfection,
son of the august cow, Rimat-Ninsun;
… Gilgamesh is awesome to perfection.

Some 3,200 years ago, a Babylonian scribe and priest named Sin-leqi-unninni compiled and standardized a number of ancient Sumerian legends of a demigod-king and his best friend. These stories were preserved on clay tablets in cuneiform script, then rediscovered in 1872 when archaeologist George Smith translated them and announced that he had "discovered among the Assyrian tablets… an account of the Flood."   Today the Epic of Gilgamesh is famous not only as the prototype for many Biblical stories but as an eloquent early example of man's struggles with depression.

Gilgamesh Finds an Enemy, and Makes a Friend

Although he was a mighty warrior, Gilgamesh lacked something in the way of leadership skills. His rule was harsh, and his penchant for deflowering virgins before their weddings and taking children from their families did not sit well with the people of Uruk. Their cries rang out to heaven until at last the gods resolved to send a worthy opponent for the arrogant king. Their creation, Enkidu, was a beast-man, covered with hair and savage as any animal. Upon seeing him trappers and hunters ran in fear, then came to King Gilgamesh to seek his assistance.
"There is a certain fellow who has come from the mountains--
he is the mightiest in the land,
his strength is as mighty as the meteorite(?) of Anu!
He continually goes over the mountains,
he continually jostles at the watering place with the animals,
he continually plants his feet opposite the watering place.  
I was afraid, so I did not go up to him.
He filled in the pits that I had dug,
wrenched out my traps that I had spread,  
released from my grasp the wild animals.
 He does not let me make my rounds in the wilderness!"
Gilgamesh's called on the services of the harlot Shamat to seduce this wild man. Her charms proved irresistible, as Enkidu stayed aroused for "six days and seven nights." But when he was sated, he discovered that the animals who had once accompanied him in the wilderness now drew away in fear. The harlot's charms had not only soothed the savage beast: they had set him on his way to becoming a civilized man.

Shamat suggested they go together to Uruk and Gilgamesh: Enkidu agreed to accompany her that he might challenge the king. Shamat introduced the wild man to civilzed pleasures like bread and beer, hoping that might calm him. But when he saw Gilgamesh preparing to bespoil yet another marital chamber, his anger rose and he blocked the doorway. After a heated wrestling match, each was impressed with the other's courage and strength and the erstwhile opponents became sworn friends.

Exercise 1-1: Strength Through Trials

Consider a situation where you have failed because you were not up to the task at hand. You may have dreamed of being a concert pianist but lacked the musical genius; you may have dreamed of medical school but didn't have the grades; you may have made it to the semifinals only to be conquered by a superior team.  Instead of using this as an excuse to beat yourself up, consider the ways in which you reorganized your life after your failure and the lessons you learned from your efforts.

"Adversity builds character" may be a cliché – but if The Epic of Gilgamesh is any indication, it's a very old one. Gilgamesh is a "wild bull," strong but untamed, who makes his subjects miserable with his arrogance and sense of entitlement. Since there is no one who can challenge him, he behaves like a spoiled child who takes whatever he wants with no regard for the feelings of others.

We may not be royalty, but we've been raised in a society where everyone can dream of becoming president and all the children are above average. If we have enough money and enough cultural capital, we can spend most of our lives without ever suffering a real failure – or achieving any kind of meaningful triumph. This may lull us into a self-righteous complacency: we may think ourselves great seafarers just because the high tide lifts our boat, and assume that anyone less fortunate than ourselves is morally or spiritually unfit.

When Enkidu arrives on the scene, Gilgamesh finally encounters his match. Some accounts have him defeating Enkidu after a long struggle: others have them fight to a draw. What is clear is that Gilgamesh has finally learned that he can be bested, that he is neither immortal nor omnipotent. In battling Enkidu, Gilgamesh is forced to come to grips with his humanity and, by extension, his fallibility and weakness. He learns humility and compassion for the subjects he had once tyrannized.

Much modern "New Age" thinking is based on the idea we create our own reality. Any problems we have are problems we have made for ourselves: if we are sad, it is because we have chosen that sadness. All we need do is accept that and we can become one of the shiny happy people living in a brave new world. But this comes with a corollary: if we are suffering, it is because we have done something to bring that suffering on ourselves.

Taking responsibility for your life is generally more useful and productive than blaming the world for all your problems. But it can also become a dangerous trap. Telling a rape survivor "no one can harm you without your permission," or asking a cancer patient what he did to create that experience is not empowering but profoundly insensitive and hurtful: if you are a victim, buying into that myth is more likely to impede than to help. It is important to take control of your life, yes – but it is also important to recognize the things that are beyond your control.

Are our sufferings sent to us as a learning experience? Possibly – but we're not under any obligation to learn from them! Gilgamesh could have crowed about his might when he finally bested Enkidu, then killed the savage who dared to challenge him, and gone on with his virgin-raping and child-stealing ways. He could have relied on his armies to conquer the intruder, keeping himself safe behind the walls of his castle. Or he could have run in terror from Enkidu, sacrificing his kingdom and his power rather than confronting the risk.  Instead he recognized that Enkidu's cause was just and that he was in the wrong. He recognized the feeling of being powerless and learned compassion for those who were powerless before him. We can deal with our failures and our limitations the same way: we can befriend them and learn their hard lessons or we can allow them to triumph over us.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Less Mirth, More Reverence: for Jennifer Jolicoeur

Jennifer Jolicoeur, owner of Athena's Home Novelties, has responded to Wintersong Tashlin and yrs. truly.  While I'm going to address some of her responses in greater detail, I should first make one clarification and apology. Her reasons for naming her company after Athena are quite different than the motivations behind the Virgin Mary Dildo or the Baby Jesus Butt Plug. She is not coming out of a place of willful disrespect and honestly believes that she is honoring Athena. I accept her sincerity: in return I would ask that she be open to the possibility that her critics are also acting out of a sincere reverence for Athena.
I believe that if you took a moment to research my company - Athena's Home Novelties before casting harsh judgement, you'd find a female company owner who is a proud pagan. 
I find it disturbing that these blogs judging my company were written without anyone contacting me first to ask WHY I named my company after my patron Goddess.
We were going to get you a dreidel... 
While I acknowledge her sincerity (as I said above), I also note that her response is in keeping with my earlier point.  Jennifer seems convinced that any offering she might make to Athena is fitting so long as she makes that offering respectfully. And while I recognize her good intentions, I would also note that there is a long history of divine taboos and proscriptions. There's an equally long history of people getting in serious trouble for violating those taboos unwittingly.  Motivation is important to modern people and Method Actors. Throughout most of history moral codes focused on actions: what you did was far more important than why you did it.

Jennifer makes another interesting statement:
I don't think it is fair that some feel that only "virgins" can serve her. 
I do not place myself higher than Athena. She is my patron Goddess and I worship her at my alter.
First, I would note that nobody was saying that only "virgins" could serve Athena. The question was whether it is appropriate to name a sex toy shop after Athena, not whether one needs an intact hymen to worship Her.  One may engage in discussion about Athena's modesty and virginity - two qualities which were central to Her character and mythology - without implying that virginity and modesty were the only or even preferred options for a society.  This is one of the great strengths of polytheism: there are many ways to honor the Divine as an individual and as a culture. But those ways are generally well-delineated with clearly marked right and wrong turns.  

I must protest this injus... AAAGGH!!
I would also point out that life is rarely "fair." It's not fair that some people are born with perfect pitch and others with tin ears; it's not fair that some are born with an innate sense of rhythm and balance while others have two left feet; it's not fair that some are born with high IQs and others with developmental disabilities. The ways of the Gods are mysterious, but rarely are they fair.  It was hardly fair that Odysseus be yanked away from his loving family for twenty years because Paris had the hots for Helen of Troy. Nor was it fair that Laocoön and his family be strangled by Poseidon's sea monsters because he was doing his job as a Trojan seer.  But if the Iliad and Odyssey are to be believed - or to be recognized as a valuable part of Hellenic mythology - we will have to address that the Gods can sometimes be unjust, arbitrary and downright cruel. 

Jennifer goes on to provide a lengthy list of things she has accomplished and charitable donations she has made through her store.  She also notes "If the mighty Athena was not pleased with my path, she would have stopped me long ago. Instead, she walks beside me, guides me and is a powerful ally." This is not an entirely unreasonable assumption. Jennifer's UPG (Uncorroborated Personal Gnosis) that Athena wanted her to name a sex toy store after her seems to be supported by the fact that said store continues to succeed and to thrive.  But this also points to a problem with UPG - namely, that not everyone is going to accept it, especially in cases where the UPG seems to conflict with the established lore.  If I say that peace-loving Kwan Yin wanted me to set up a mixed martial arts and weapons supply house in Her name, or the most sober of Orishas wants me to open Obatala's Liquor Store, I can hardly be surprised if people question my motivations.

In the end this is a dispute about theology.  It is possible for reasonable people to disagree on these issues and yet remain cordial or even friendly to each other.  I don't accept Muhammad as the Seal of the Prophets, nor do I believe the Q'uran and Hadiths should be the ultimate arbiters in all matters spiritual, social and scientific. But I can still acknowledge the contributions Islam has made to our world and remain friends with Muslims. In a similar vein I might question the decision to name a sex toy shop after a modest virgin Goddess yet recognize the sincerity and devotion of those who do.

In fact, I'd say this kind of discussion is vital to developing a polytheistic spiritual community.  The fact that we care enough to debate these topics suggest we are moving beyond play-acting and into genuine devotion.  We are arguing about how the Gods should be respected, but we are in agreement that They are worthy of respect.   

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Mirth and Rever... well, Mirth, anyway

Wintersong Tashlin recently posted a very interesting essay on a sex toy shop/distributor named "Athena's Home Novelties." He sums up his objections:
Now, if you have read Notes From a Barking Shaman before, or in fact have taken even a cursory glance at, you surely know that I am the last person to object to sex on moral or spiritual grounds! A thorough embracing of sex and sexuality as part of one’s spiritual journey is a central feature in my life and Work.
Nor do I object to companies taking deity names. There is a long and noble history of businesses honoring a patron or inviting the gods’ blessing through name choices. Fire, Asrik, and I chose the name Brigantian Designs LLC for our now-defunct design firm as an homage to the Celtic goddess Brigit, who we hoped would look with favor on our endeavors.
If you have even a cursory level of knowledge of Greek mythology, it is not hard to see what my problem is with “Athena’s Home Novelties.” You see, a driving element in the lore surrounding Athena is that She is a virgin goddess. We’re not talking about a deity simply without any tales featuring sex, or whose purview was some unrelated area of life. No, the fact that Athena is a virgin is actually really important in Her lore and Her place in Greek culture and mythology.
Not only is She virginal, She’s modest. In a culture that treated bare breasts as fashion accessories (even fellow virgin goddess Artemis is often seen in an off-the-shoulder number too revealing for Project Runway), Athena is portrayed fully clothed in either voluminous robes or armor.
It is possible that you could choose a worse Greek deity to name an “Adult Novelties” company after, but for the life of me, none leap to mind.
Maybe they consulted Burger King's former ad agency
Galina Krasskova commented on Facebook "Once again, it's ok to mock polytheism. Try naming your company 'Mohammed's sex accessories" or "Jesus' home novelties" and see how quickly your company lasts. >_< ."  I think this is actually symptomatic of something even more profoundly wrong within our culture.  Witness Divine Interventions, a sex toy shop which features such hits as the Egg of Shiva (vibrating power bullet sold separately), the Virgin Mary dildo, and the Baby Jesus Butt Plug.  What we see here isn't a disrespect for polytheism, but for the very concept of Divinity.

The problem as I see it is is that many within our culture find words like "reverence" and "respect" more obscene than slapping a deity's face on a silicone dick or wiping your ass on a Torah scroll.  Kneeling before the Gods is groveling in fear: condemning blasphemy is bigotry and intolerance. The rantings of online trolls must be protected by law. Holy scriptures of any religion, meanwhile, are silly superstitions which can be mocked at will.

While the Abrahamic religions are notorious for their anti-blasphemy proscriptions, they didn't come up with the idea.  Socrates was put to death by the Athenian government for blasphemy and impiety. Confucianism places great stock in li, or ritual propriety: those who violated that propriety could be subject to legal sanction. In Seneca's tragedy Hercules Furens, a raging Juno calls forth from the darkest caverns of Dis the evil spirit Impietas.  Upon the death of the monotheist pharaoh Akhenaton, he was erased from the official records by the priests of the old Gods and referred to ever after as "the Heretic."

Throughout different times and cultures, there was an idea that respect for the Gods and reverence for their religion was vital if the social order were to be preserved. Blasphemy was a far more serious crime than murder. The drunken thug who slays his friend in a tavern brawl kills an individual: the blasphemer threatens the very underpinnings of the culture.This is more than a simple fear that the Gods might punish the impious (although that was a very real belief which is largely downplayed today by those seeking kinder, gentler, more indulgent deities).  It was an acknowledgement that there is Something Greater than humanity.

Since the Enlightenment we have deposed the Gods and placed ourselves on Their thrones. Where once we cherished the words of Deity, now we hold sacrosanct the rights of individuals to say what they want, when they want and where they want. Where once we worshipped the Gods, we now engage in acts of ritualistic blasphemy to prove ourselves superior to Them.  Even among those who strive to recreate the worship of the pre-monotheist era, there's an incredible resistance to the idea that we might need to show piety to the Sacred, that we might need to declare something Holy, that we might be forced to deal with "thou Shalts" and "thou Shalt Nots."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

On the Silent Wings of Freedom: Defining Liberty

In my contribution to the Turtle Island 42 blog, I went into some detail about the word "Freedom" and its connection to the Goddess Columbia.  Since the topic continues to garner attention (and discussion), I thought it was worthwhile to comment further.

When I noted on Wild Hunt that "the American fetish for "rights" is not necessarily shared by everyone the world over. In many cultures law and order, peace and prosperity, and conformity to social norms are all seen as far more important than an individual's right to troll Internet forums, follow a minority religion or buy pornography,"  Apuleius Platonicus weighed in with his strongly-felt opinions:
Kenaz, when Africans were enslaved and brought in chains to the "New World", were they deprived of their freedom, or not? What was it that Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, etc, rose up in rebellion over? If it was not freedom, then please tell me what it was. 
To deny that "freedom" is something that all human beings desire and have a "right" to is tantamount to saying that there is nothing wrong with slavery if those enslaved have no concept of freedom to begin with. In fact, this was, in essence, precisely the justification that Europeans gave for enslaving Africans. 
Or perhaps you are claiming that Africans only learned about freedom from Europeans? But I seriously doubt that.
* * *
I completely reject the notion that modern Europeans are the only people who cherish freedom. I find the very idea intrinsically racist. 
In fact, the ideas about freedom, equality, democracy, etc, that we associate with the Enlightenment were really a revival of ideas from pre-Christian societies, including of course Greek and Roman societies, but also Germanic, Celtic and other cultures. 
Chinese history is also filled with examples of popular uprisings against injustice and oppression, going back 3,000 years or more.
Apuleius is a smart fellow: while we've crossed swords in the past I definitely recognize his intelligence even when I disagree with his conclusions. But though he keeps using the word "freedom," he seems unwilling or unable to provide a definition - or, more precisely, to explain what freedom means to him.  Hence, I'm forced to look to a different authority:

free·dom [free-duhm] Show IPA  noun
1. the state of being free or at liberty rather than inconfinement or under physical restraint: He won his freedom after a retrial.
2. exemption from external control, interference, regulation,etc.
3. the power to determine action without restraint.
4. political or national independence.
5. personal liberty, as opposed to bondage or slavery: a slave who bought his freedom.
 #2 gets to the heart of a comment from my TI42 post.  Ian O. took exception to my statement that Lincoln justified war against the Confederate States - who had chosen secession with widespread support from their citizens - in the name of "freedom."
Why call the Confederate movement 'popular'? They only form a comfortable 'popular' majority if you exclude the rest of the U.S. at the time *and* exclude the slaves they oppressed.  
Let's keep in mind, that the number of 'popularly' elected officials representing the to-be-Confederate states at the national level were inflated on the basis of enslaved African populations who had no influence over their selection. 
Calling Lincoln's refusal to acknowledge secession a brutal assault on freedom buys into the lies of Lost Cause history that pretends the Confederacy stood for anything else but slavery and expanding white supremacy.  
Really, the Confederate elites made no bones about their desire to preserve slavery and, if they had their druthers, returning places like Haiti to it.
I do not intend to be an apologist for slavery or the sins of the Confederacy. But the inconvenient fact remains that the people of the southern states chose to dissolve the Union and form their own government. Their reasons for that secession were wrong-headed, even evil.  Nevertheless it was a popular choice, and one which they were willing to defend by taking up arms.  The people of the Confederacy did not greet the Union Army as liberators when they came marching through town: they were brought back into the Union only after a long, bloody and brutal struggle.  And let's also put the issue of "liberating the slaves" into some perspective: while the Confederate attitude toward blacks and slavery was repellent Lincoln's proposed solutions to the "Negro problem" were no less problematic:
In his annual message to Congress in December of [1861] , Lincoln made his first public statement as president in support of colonization. Former slaves seeking refuge across Union lines, who were regarded as contraband, had aroused the racist fears of northern whites and threatened to become an economic burden. To alleviate the problem, Lincoln suggested that Congress appropriate funds for colonizing the slaves. He also advocated an additional step. "It might be well to consider," he submitted, "whether the free colored people already in the United States could not, so far as individuals may desire, be included in such colonization."10 Thus he called for not just a relief plan for the freedmen, but for a full program of racial separation.
This brings us to one of the pesky inconveniences of freedom: sometimes free people will make choices we find repellent.  Freed from Communist tyranny, the Serbians residing in the former Yugoslavia launched genocidal war against Bosnians and Albanians residing in the region.  With the fall of the Mubarek regime, Egypt's Muslim majority has grown increasingly intolerant of its Coptic Christian minority.   And we all know how well our plan to withdraw support to Shah Reha Pahlavi and encourage a democratic government in Iran worked out - not to mention our Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

If we were justified in preserving the Union through force and dragging the south kicking and screaming back under United States control, is the Russian government justified in maintaining control over Chechnya with an oppressive military presence?  What about our efforts to "free" Chile from the popularly elected Allende government - or the Soviet tanks that "liberated" Czechoslovakia and Hungary? When does it become necessary to take away the right to popular rule in order to protect "Freedom."

At what point are we justified in taking away freedom in order to save it? And what do we do when the newly liberated don't recognize the superiority of European and American models of democracy and choose to  build a political system and society based on other models? There are no easy answers - but I think it's important that we raise the questions anyway.  Until we have some clear idea of what "Freedom" means, we are at risk of falling prey to any demagogue looking to justify this week's convenient atrocity.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Ethics Beyond Good and Evil: for Layo

Responding to my earlier post (or to the post from R.O. which inspired it: as is often the case, it's unclear what triggered this), Layo said:
Oh for fuck's sake. Only a fucking ham slice would claim that just because they personally have zero emotional intelligence, there's no difference between good and evil.
Is killing babies evil? I don't know too many people who would justify the murder of innocents.  (To be fair, my sample may be skewed since I would quickly dissociate myself from anyone who tried).  But now let's go to the next question: at what point does a fetus become an innocent baby? And for bonus points, answer this: how much obligation do we have to protect innocent babies from those who would murder them?  Is allowing 1,000 babies to be killed more evil than killing their murderer and thereby stopping the slaughter?

The readers of my blog are likely to have a certain degree of consensus on this issue.  I suspect that most are in favor of a woman's right to safe and legal abortion.  Should I post this conundrum to a Catholic forum, I suspect I might find a very different consensus.  They might well point out the inherent absurdity of condemning infanticide while permitting late-term abortions. They might even express approval at those who shut down the dark Satanic mills of the abortion industry through civil disobedience or acts of vandalism.  A few might even go so far as to state that George Tiller's murder was a mixed (or even an unmixed) blessing, since his death saved the lives of many babies. 

Speak for yourself, Filan...

People on both sides of this issue have very strong feelings: their emotional intelligence has led them to unshakeable yet contradictory conclusions.  Given this dichotomy, it's clear that "emotional intelligence" is an unreliable guide at best. 

Most abusers will happily explain to you that "the bitch had it coming." Most criminals will gladly point to all the extenuating circumstances that led up to their misdeeds and paint themselves as victims of an unjust society.  The most dastardly will find ways to excuse or explain their actions - indeed, humanity as a species may be programmed for this sort of self-justification.  Outside of horror films, very few people willfully and knowingly do what they feel is evil for the sake of evil.   

Fuck. To clarify, the perception that one can either be a Powerful Abuser or a Deluded Victim is a false dichotomy. It's used by abusive fuckwads on people who disapprove of abusiveness. "If you don't like abusing people, then you're a brainwashed victim." I will beat your face in if that's what it takes to defend myself, but that's a far cry from using as much of my power as I can to force other people to do what I want just because, wow, I examined the consequences of being a fucking dick, and short-term, it's a win! Selfish, irresponsible use of power does not make you a free, lordly Ubermensch. It makes you an asshole and a coward and everybody knows it. You know it. You do it because you're afraid all the time. Everyone knows you're trying to make other people suffer the way you once suffered. The only people who think it's great are people like you: nutless porkboys.
And I'm sure that the person who gets hir face beaten in by Layo will see Layo as evil and hirself as a victim.  Nor would I expect Layo to see herself as a powerful abuser. As I pointed out above, abusers typically see themselves as victims when they are called on the carpet. I would expect her to feel quite satisfied with her morality and to justify her actions (to herself and to others) by whatever means prove necessary.

To that end, it appears Layo is engaging in a favorite technique of feminist argument: attempting to derail conversation by painting herself as a victim and those who disagree with her as abusers.    Layo would rather see herself as a victim than as an abuser, because in her circles oppressors are bad people. To that end she tries to use her femininity as a trump card: she hopes to take the moral advantage away from her male opponent, while simultaneously absolving herself from any taint of superiority. Alas, this technique is doomed to failure from the start. Victims win pity if they are lucky and contempt if they aren't, but only rarely do they get anything but scraps thrown to them by those who are more fortunate.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

New Kenaz Filan Post at Turtle Island 42 Initiative: On Columbia and Freedom

Galina Krasskova and Ukumbwa Sauti, in response to the DC40 Prayer Initiative (a Christian magical working which seeks to "lay siege to Washington" and attack "the manifestations of the acts of Satan on our TVs, radios, movies and throughout our society" have proposed a magical counterattack.  The Turtle Island 42 Initiative (named after one of the indigenous names for present-day America) seeks:
... to organize focused learning, support and daily spiritual work in validation of and gratitude for indigenous spirituality and Ancestral traditions that have sustained human life in harmony with nature and Spirit for the majority of human history. Organizers will be posting daily prayers, invocations and information in the hopes of strengthening understanding and active spiritual support within the indigenous and Ancestral traditions that so many people in this country and across the globe carry with pride and confidence.
* * * * *
TI42 rejects the disrespect inherent in the Doctrine of Discovery, monotheistic imperialism and organized and predatory missionary work.  TI42 stands with the indigenous people of Turtle Island and beyond and all those who struggle to carry forward their Ancestral indigenous traditions from all corners of this world.
In support of their cause, I have contributed an essay on Columbia, the patroness of America and protector of freedom. More precisely, I've attempted to analyze what exactly "Freedom" means.  Like any Goddess worthy of the title, Columbia is a complex and multi-faceted deity: we do Her a disservice when we reduce Her to a patriotic cliche or when we dismiss Her as a mere symbol of American imperialism and oppression.  By understanding how we have used and misused Her rallying cry, we may be better able to govern Her land in a fair and just fashion.  I hope the words which I have offered may prove to be a worthy gift and that they will be of service to Her.